How family stories inspired Allison Mills's novel about a girl who catches spirits in her hair
Allison Mills's debut book, The Ghost Collector, draws from both her childhood love for ghost stories and her family history. The middle-grade novel follows a girl named Shelly whose grandmother teaches her to catch ghosts in her hair and help them move on. When Shelly's mother dies, she waits for her ghost to come home and starts secretly collecting spirits in her bedroom.
Mills talked to CBC Books about writing her first book.
"When I was young, I liked reading ghost stories. There's a series of books called Haunted Canada that is about supposedly true Canadian ghost stories that I was really into. The concept of ghosts has stuck with me since I was a kid, although I was terrified of them.
Ghosts, to me, represent a liminal space — a space that is not alive and is not dead.- Allison Mills
"Ghosts, to me, represent a liminal space — a space that is not alive and is not dead. Being from a family that is both Cree and settler and living in a bicultural space, that feeling of not being part of either thing was something that I connected to. Haunting as a metaphor is something that has always fascinated me. There's a very literal take on haunting, which is a ghost that follows you around. But there's also things, experiences and feelings that can haunt you and stick with you. That metaphorical take on haunting is something that has always been in the back of my mind when I think about ghosts."
"Growing up, I heard a lot of family stories about how my great-grandmother Louisa would be called upon by the RCMP in Chapleau to help them find bodies and people who went missing. Chapleau was a railroad town and Lower Town, where my grandfather grew up, was literally the wrong side of the tracks. Growing up in a place where people looked down on him for being Indigenous, but then also having the RCMP come to their house and ask his mother for help — there is a weirdness in that. He had pride knowing that [his mother] was respected in a way.
My grandfather would also talk about [his mother] finding people in her dreams and using that as a connection with their spirit.- Allison Mills
"He talked about her being able to find people or bodies who are missing, especially in the river or lake in Chapleau. I think part of that was because she was familiar with the land and the water. When her family moved from Moose Factory to Chapleau, her family came down by canoe. She was familiar with the territory and knew where things or people would wash up. My grandfather would also talk about her finding people in her dreams and using that as a connection with their spirit."
Writing about loss for kids
"I wasn't expecting to know as much about Shelly's mom as I ended up knowing. A lot of it is only implied in the book or didn't make it in, but I feel like I ended up knowing her and where she was coming from. She is absent for so much of the book, although she's always on Shelly's mind. She was also always on my mind as I was writing it.
"[It was a challenge] to write a book about grief and death for children that wasn't too heavy-handed and that didn't leave readers feeling hopeless or stranded by the end of it. It was something that I wrestled with a lot. I didn't want this to be a book that made people feel worse than they started out feeling when they were reading it."
Allison Mills's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can see more interviews from the How I Wrote It series here.